Normally, this is the time of year I would spend an entire blog entry predicting the finish for the 2011 football season in the Southeastern Conference, attempting to take into account a) what everyone has coming back and b) what everyone picked up in the recruiting race (witness, for example, my prescient look at the 2009 season).
Unfortunately, looking at the SEC in 2011, I have no idea how to make heads or tails of it.
Screenwriter William Goldman famously once said, "Nobody knows anything." That's the way I feel looking at the potential season looming in this league. For the first time since 2007, we're entering the season without a clear favorite.
Don't believe me? Conventional wisdom in football suggests the two most important positions on a football team are coach and quarterback. Teams can't win championships based on those two attributes alone, but they're usually the two things we as media members pick out when we're identifying preseason favorites.
Well, where would you look at this year's SEC for a reliable coach-quarterback combination? Consider, among the contenders ...
• Alabama enters 2011 with a defense that should be nasty and a coach that absolutely knows how to recruit and coach defense better than anyone else in the game. But the offense will be in the hands of the untested A.J. McCarron, a strong-armed kid with way too much confidence in his arm and the potential to possibly give Nick Saban an aneurysm before everything's said and done. Moreover, play-calling duties still belong to Jim McElwain, whose offenses have been ... inconsistent. And that's being kind.
• LSU brings back enough talent on both sides of the ball to talk championship this season. But, the guy at the head of the program still occasionally resembles an escaped mental patient running an NCAA dynasty, and the quarterback is still some combination of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, neither of whom inspires visions of a young Peyton Manning at the helm.
• Auburn is ... actually, let's talk about Auburn later.
• No one knows what to make of Florida, a program stocked with talent now coached by Will Muschamp. Is he a good coach? A bad coach? Can he run a program? No one knows anything about him as a coach, except that he is very adept at a) blitzing and b) swearing violently on live TV. And the quarterback here is still John Brantley, who everyone assumes can be good in the right offense. Is he in the right offense? Who knows?
• South Carolina "arrived" in 2010 by beating a Georgia team that was trying desperately to get its coach fired, ambushing the defending champs in Columbia and beating a rapidly unraveling Florida team in Gainesville. Along the way, they lost to Kentucky, got drilled at home by Arkansas and were chewed up by the Cam Newton World Tour in Atlanta. I'm supposed to ride them to repeat when they have to replace quarterback Stephen Garcia?
• Not only do I have only a small amount of confidence in Tennessee's Derek Dooley, their quarterback has his own surname tattooed across his shoulders. Whatever.
• Weirdly, the team that looks the best judging by the "coach+quarterback" formula: Georgia, which returns the talented Aaron Murray and still has a strong talent base under Mark Richt. But considering how blatantly his team quit on him 2010, how much faith are we supposed to put in the guy a year later?
The other factor that makes me leery about picking the conference favorites in February: Every year a team arrives that I never saw coming. Auburn in 2010, of course, is the ultimate example: they rode the Cam Newton Express and a favorable schedule (every important game in their backyard until November) to national prominence, and by the end of the year, they were an unstoppable force. I didn't see that coming at this time last year, and I don't think most of us did, either.
That's ultimately what makes it fun: We can make predictions, but nobody really knows anything.